Hikers on the Delaware. The boat in the foreground has slung two men onto the “pry board”, a plank slung over the windward rail, to keep the 15 foot long hull upright under the press of a sail that could be as much as 450 sq ft. The masts could be up to 28 feet tall, and to achieve a wide enough shroud base these Hikers were fitted with “whiskers” projecting out three feet from each side of the bow.
Smaller boats seem to have been almost ignored around by the sandbagger sailors. Although there are mentions of people sailing the famous Whitehall rowboats, searches reveal very few racing. There are reports of some racing catboats as short as 12’/3.66m, which were said to be so tippy that their skippers had to part their hair down the middle, and laugh only out of the centre of their mouth. But it was said that to the sandbagger sailors, boats under 16 feet didn’t count.
There’s a reason they called these Delaware 15 footers “Hikers”. In this Thomas Eakin painting, three crew up forward hike outboard hanging onto ropes leading up from the bilge.
However, a few miles further south, another group of Americans were sailing smaller boats that were much closer to the modern dinghy than the big, heavy sandbaggers were. Several types of clinker (lapstrake) 15 footer were developed for hunting waterfowl or picnicking along the still-unspoiled Delaware River near Philadelphia. They had skinny and low hulls in the classic “oar and sail” style, which will be subject of a later post. In typical fashion, as time went by they started racing.
The Delaware small-boat sailors operated out of hundreds of small (10ft by 20 ft) boathouses that occupied the piers jutting out from the riverfront, crammed so closely together that 90 boathouses of the Southwark Yacht Club burned in one day in 1881. “Here there are several long wharves, lined on each side with rows of two-story boat houses, twenty to thirty in a row” wrote W.P. Stephens. “In these houses are stored hundred of duckers and tuckups, while the upper story of each is fitted up more or less comfortably for the use of the crews; gunning, fishing and camping outfits, with sails and gear, being kept there.”
Perhaps it was the confines of the small boatsheds, in which 15 footers were stored one above each other in racks, and the practicalities of launching from piers that caused the Delaware classes to evolve towards slender, lightweight and efficient hulls instead of following the sandbaggers down the path of great beam and power. The light, narrow Delaware boats could be moved around the boathouses and docks in a way that would have been impossible for keelboats or for the beamy, heavy sandbaggers and classic catboats. The physical layout of their boathouses may have forced the Delaware sailors away from the simple option of increasing sail area and power, and towards the route of gaining speed through minimalism and efficiency.
Although the exact classifications varied from era to era and club to club, the Delaware 15 footers were generally divided into three or four classes. The double-ended canoe-like “duckers” were restricted to 42″ or 48” beam, about 115 sq ft of sail in a sprit cat rig, and two or three crew.
The transom-sterned “tuckups” carried four crew, a beam of 4 feet, and about 112 to 144 sq ft of sail – due to rule changes and the unique local way of measuring sails, exact figures are hard to find. The biggest of them all were the hikers, which had a beam of up to 6ft (later restricted to 5ft) and carried up to eight or ten crewmen to handle a vast cat rigged main of up to 450 sq ft. The hikers carried masts as high as 28 feet, using “whiskers” or outriggers that extended out each side of the bow in the style of a modern Open 60 shorthanded racer to spread the shroud base to give the mast enough support. Centreboards were light by the standards of the time, with many boats using light wooden foils instead of the customary metal ones, and even a “first class hiker” could have a bare hull weight as low as 175lb/79kg – light even by today’s standards. The typical tuckup or hiker was so slender and carried such a large rig that they had to be held upright once the mast was stepped.
Perhaps because the narrowness of the river required short tacks or perhaps because they chose light weight instead of power, the Delaware classes relied on crew weight for ballast instead of sandbags. To make their weight as useful as possible, they fitted “life lines”; “fastened to the center-board the mast and the lower yard of the sail are five or six ropes, which are long enough to hand over one side into the water. On the ends which go over the side are fastened bars of wood, and on these bars of wood hang the human ballast” wrote a story by the Philadelphia Press which was reprinted in newspapers across the USA. “The captain yells frantically “hike over”. In an instant the ropes are stretched taut and the wooden bars disappear into the water, followed by the men or the posterior part of them. Only their legs remain in the boat as they sit on the transverse bars and hold on to the ropes. Every other wave surges up to their necks, and often a dip to windward submerges them completely, with the exception of their legs, which flourish wildly up over the side at the boat, but when they reappear again the craft has been saved from capsizing by this sudden hanging out of from 800 to over 1,000 pounds on the windward side. Sometimes an entire tack across the river is made with the crew “hiking out in this manner.”
Other Hiker crews used their crew weight even more effectively, hanging onto their enormous rigs by sending three or four men out to windward on giant “pry boards”, like those of the racing sharpies or the Log Canoes further south. Maritime historian Ben Fuller (who wrote an excellent article on the Delaware classes for the May/June 1999 edition of Wooden Boat magazine) notes that some boats even used hinged hiking racks, like those of 1980s 18 Foot Skiffs.
Of course, carrying such a big crew in a small boat became a disadvantage in light winds, and the Delaware sailors found the same antidote as other early dinghy racers. If the wind dropped off, “the captain glances significantly at one of the crew, the yachtsman grins, pulls off his boots and drops overboard” noted the Philadelphia Press. Perhaps he is picked up, perhaps he is not noticed in the excitement of the race, and is left to take care of himself. In this case he calmly strikes out for the shore, half a mile away. Sometimes half a dozen men are dropped over in this manner from one boat, in order to lighten her and keep her rivals from crawling ahead. But woe betide the captain who sacrifices too many of his men. There may come an unforeseen wind and bowl over the too-lightly ballasted boat in the twinkling of an eye.”
Today we see only the romantic side of sailing boats like this. Older accounts speak of a different story in those days before wetsuits, lightweight clothing and modern gear and medicine. “There is a great deal of excitement in sailing an open boat in a stiff breeze, lying out over the side and holding on over the life lines, but not much comfort, and the drenching and sitting for hours in the wind while acting as live ballast is not very favourable for health” wrote Delaware sailor Benjamin Adams in 1886. Today it may be easier to mock Adams’ words, but we live in a different era. In the days when clothes were costly and had to be washed and wrung out by hand and hung on a line, when paid sick leave and physiotherapy were undreamed of, the allure of leaning hard and getting soaked all day could easily pall.
From 1880 to 1890, these spectacular and fast open boats of the Delaware could attract fleets of up to 100 boats, with spectator crowds and fleets to match; indeed judging from the number of accounts of races where a racer was hindered by a non-racing boat, sometimes the line between “spectator” and “racer” was blurred, perhaps because of the influence of gambling. These races were extraordinarily long and risky by modern standards, with 30 mile races common and the 15 footers sometimes racing over 100 miles.
The Delaware sailors formed an egalitarian mix, where doctors sailed alongside labourers, trolleys to move the boats were shared communally, and boats were used for cruising as well as for racing. “On Sundays in particular the wharves and houses are crowded, the boats are off for short cruises up or down the river, or races are sailed between the recognized cracks, handled by old and skillful captains and trained crews” recalled W.P. Stephens.
In some ways the Delaware classes seem to be the most technologically advanced small boat of their day, but unlike the sandbaggers and the beamier catboats further north, they had little impact outside their home waters. Exactly why they stayed so low profile is unknown; perhaps newspapers like Forest and Stream concentrated more on New York because it was their home city, or perhaps the 15 footers were seen as too small to be newsworthy.
Sadly, a type that promised to add so much to the dinghy racing scene died late in the 19th century. As Fuller notes, the rise in other sports like cycling and baseball had an effect. So too did the fact that the Philadelphia sailors only rented their boatsheds. By the mid 1880s, the waterfront boathouses had been demolished, as the piers were replaced by industries and railways. The Hikers and Tuckups vanished almost entirely from our knowledge, and with them went what could be seen as one of the healthiest and most advanced small-boat scenes of the era – probably an innocent victim of economic and geographical changes outside its control.